A Love Note to Napalm Death

I was never really a punk. Oh, sure, I love Damaged and Fresh Fruit For Rotting Vegetables, and I rocked more than a few heavily-safety pinned items of clothing in my day, but I always identified more with the metalhead aesthetic of personal and spiritual grandiosity than the punk concept of rebelling against the System and bringing down the Man. A philosophy of anarchy always seemed hypocritical to me; promoting chaos means that the law of the jungle is reinstated, which, honestly, means the Conan-looking motherfuckers win. Metal, meanwhile, was more about the internal conflicts of the body and soul, subjects I found much more relatable. Looking back on it, I thought about punk the way I’m sure a lot of punks think of metal—Awesome tunes, cool clothes, good people, but honestly, it’s all a bit silly, isn’t it?

Which is why it took me so long to get into Napalm Death. Sure, they were widely regarded as a death metal band by the time I, at the tender age of 16, discovered them, but everything I’d read or heard about them put severe emphasis on their political agenda, which to me reeked of proselytizing. Other bands I was into didn’t preach to me; Slayer, White Zombie, and Dimmu Borgir existed more as revels in cool subjects like vampires and serial murder. And so for many years, I shunned Birmingham’s third-greatest band, uninterested in hearing another group of dudes with a political mission scream at me (to be fair, I was 16, and assumed I had this Life shit figured out).

There are two reasons why my denial of Napalm Death was wrong. The first is, of course, the music, which is some of the better death metal and grindcore I’ve ever heard, straddling a line between groove-heavy melody and utter brutality in a way I hadn’t really experienced until I heard it. My first taste of Napalm Death was 1994’s Fear, Emptiness, Despair, considered one of the band’s death metal albums as opposed to their grind records, and it won me over instantly. Fear… wasn’t too simple or too experimental, too sappy or too inhuman. The music and lyrics touched on concepts I was experiencing personally, but did so with the aid of metaphor. And the riffs! To my ear, metal is all about the riff, and Fear… is loaded with grinding, surging, tumultuous guitar work that sounds like a drive-by bludgeoning with a sledgehammer. From then on, I was happy to grab whatever new Napalm disc I could get my hands on. It amazed me that you could put out a really interesting and entertaining death metal record with every song under four minutes, and that you didn’t have to sacrifice one side of the music for another.

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Napalm Death – “Twist the Knife (Slowly)”

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But the second and more important reason I was wrong to deny Napalm Death is their politics. Never mind that the band espouses ultra-vehement versions of my own political views—Napalm Death are always about the human issue behind a political agenda rather than the abstract concept or the statistics of it. There’s an emotional resonance there that a lot of political bands seem to forget—the understanding that human life lies at the bottom of these complicated issues. Too often political bands spew dates, numbers, and textbook cases at me in the hopes of winning me over with cold, hard fact, but I’m not that kind of guy. Hearing a body count seems starched and clinical to me. Paint me a picture, though, of a destroyed village or a beaten slave laborer, or read me an account of their struggle and pain, and I’m there, I’m listening, I’m feeling. Some might call that sensationalism, but what matters is its connection to my sense of self. Death metal is finally about the gross corporeal horror of the world, and Napalm Death’s politics are soaking in it.

Not to say there’s any struggle to find reasons why Napalm Death are cool. The band’s name and logo epitomize the genre’s atmosphere of bloody grandiosity, and their twisted sense of humor—”You Suffer” being, to me, the king of musical middle fingers—is straight-up endearing. They’ve been doing their thing non-stop since its inception without compromising their sound and while simultaneously evolving along the way, which is basically what every band dreams of doing. They almost single-handedly started grindcore, then went on to revitalize death metal, and now play an overdriven bastard child of the two, giving fans of each subgenre a portion of their career to become engrossed in. To top it all off, a Napalm Death show is amazing- their brand of grimy, chugging metal translating perfectly into the live arena (Barney Greenway’s flailing death-jig is also a plus). But these are all reasons why Napalm Death are cool, and don’t touch entirely, I believe, on why they’re important.

Extreme metal has always been about overkill . . . being fastest, hardest, loudest, biggest, meanest, truest. But for some bands, there is a comfortable seat within this extremity; for example, a band like Cannibal Corpse has found its place in the realm of epic gore. And that’s fine—the band knows what they do well, and do it well, and the album’s good, and we all headbang. Napalm Death, though, have no role, no seat at the table. Like the world of culture and politics the band comments on, they are a roiling sea of aggression, anguish, and desperation. There is never an understanding as to exactly what they’re going to do next, and there’s never an immediate indication of what a given song will be about; there is a freedom in Napalm Death to focus on any subject they like. On “When All Is Said And Done” off of 2006’s Smear Campaign, Greenway bellows the line “This life is a gift to be lived and loved,” and the line holds as much furor as any exaltation of Satan or Jeffrey Dahmer or Vlad the Impaler.

Napalm Death is a bastion of versatility in extremity. They consistently prove, album to album, that “more is more” can be achieved without ego or machismo or an unnecessary focus on cruelty, that the good guys, the artists, the humans, can make the most aggressive music in the world. Metal’s obsession with darkness is often shielded against detractors with the argument that its fans and creators are reacting to the heartbreaking grotesquery of the real world around them, and if that’s the case, then Napalm Death are the ultimate defenders of the faith. Rather than fall into crust punk’s often self-indulgent Fuck Everything ethos, they have emotionally bristled to each of man’s shortcomings in stride. Their genuine take on inhumanity keeps death metal legitimate, invigorated, and ready to fight the culture war, perpetually reminding us that the rage is real—if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.

— Scab Casserole

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Napalm Death – “When All Is Said and Done”

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Header image by Cindy Frey.